Former gang member granted new murder trial

John Drummond

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A federal appeals court panel on Monday upheld a ruling granting a former Youngstown gang member convicted of killing a 3-month-old a new trial.

The U.S. Sixth Circuit Appeals Court panel ruled Monday in a 2-1 decision that former Lincoln Knolls Crips gang member John Drummond, 36, will have a new murder trial in Mahoning County Common Pleas Court because a disgraced judge wrongfully ordered his trial closed while three witnesses testified.

Drummond was convicted in 2004 of fatally shooting the Jiyen Dent Jr. on March 24, 2003 in a gang-retaliation shooting aimed at Dent’s father. He fired 11 bullets from an assault rifle into the home because he wrongly believed Dent Sr. had something to do with the murder of another Lincoln Knolls Crips gang member.

Drummond was convicted of aggravated murder with death penalty specifications, attempted murder, two counts of attempting to cause bodily harm through the use of a deadly weapon, discharging a firearm into an occupied structure and use of a firearm while under disability.

He was sentenced to death until he was taken off death row by U.S. District Judge Sara Lioi in 2011, who ruled then-Mahoning County Common Pleas Judge Maureen Cronin violated Drummond’s right to an open trial.

An Ashtabula County jury, also on Monday, began deliberating after a trial to determine if Drummond beat and murdered Ronald Hull Feb. 8, 1997 in an Ashtabula apartment on West 38th Street over drugs and money.

He is facing aggravated murder and kidnapping charges stemming from a cold case solved in January.

Sixth Circuit judges R. Guy Cole and Richard A. Griffin affirmed Lioi’s ruling that the 2004 trial closure violated Drummond’s right to an open trial. Lioi’s opinion overturned an Ohio Supreme Court ruling that the trial was fair.

“Because we now find that Drummond’s Sixth Amendment right to a public trial was clearly established at the time of the Supreme Court of Ohio’s decision and because that law was unreasonably applied by the Supreme Court of Ohio, we affirm the judgment of the district court,” Cole’s opinion says.

Cole wrote Cronin failed to detail why the closure was necessary. He also noted Drummond’s attorney, James Gentile, at the time specifically objected to Drummond’s family being forced from the courtroom despite having nothing to do with any court disturbances.

“For reasons only the trail court knows, the family was removed from the courtroom anyway,” the opinion says. “Therefore the closure was broader than necessary and it was unreasonable for the Supreme Court of Ohio to find otherwise.”

Cronin, who was convicted of taking bribes in an unrelated incident and sentenced to 27 months in federal prison, closed the trial for several hours Feb. 4 and ordered everyone leave the building because jurors and witnesses felt threatened by spectators.

The three witnesses testified they heard Drummond discuss Dent Sr.’s perceived involvement in the gang member’s murder, that they saw Drummond tell an associate “It’s on,” and that he returned to the party with an assault rifle 15 minutes before the shooting.

Cronin also noted Drummond approached in jail the husband of a potential juror dismissed during jury selection and that two spectators caused disturbances during the first three days of the trial.

She said one disrespected her and sheriff deputies in her chambers and another fought with deputies providing court security.

“Review of the record provides no indication as to which witness felt threatened— not even an oblique reference to some characteristic of a threatened witness,” Cole wrote.

Judge Raymond Kethledge, who dissented from Cole’s opinion, wrote case law allowing trial closures left vague instructions for how to proceed. Kethledge noted the trial was only partially closed— the media was allowed to stay— and other parts of trial were open.

The dissent says Cronin articulated reasons for partially closing the trial, which Kethledge said he believes means Cronin met the standard for lawfully closing the trial.

“What Drummond complains about, rather, is fine print: that the closure was broader than strictly necessary, that the court’s findings in support of the closure were not as careful and detailed as they should have been, that the court did not make clear the extent to which it considered other alternatives,” Kethledge wrote.

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